Tag: academia

A 3-step guide to completing your thesis when you’re feeling utterly overwhelmed

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with quite a few people working on a Masters or Doctoral level thesis. Some of them are planning to continue into a career in academia, but most are not. While their questions to me are all slightly different, the tension feels similar: how can I reconcile all of this stuff?

Drop-out rates, especially at doctoral level, are pretty high. Even those who don’t do so are likely to experience a significant ‘dip’. There are many factors for this, but my hunch is that it’s not primarily because there’s too much work involved. I think that it’s more to do with the overwhelming number of possible areas of research. In other words, it’s all to do with scope.

So, I’d like to offer some help. My only experience is in the Humanities, so take this with a pinch of salt and in the spirit it’s intended. If you’re mid-way in your dissertation or thesis and you’re feeling a bit stuck, here’s what I suggest you do.

1. Stop

Go back to your proposal. What does it say? What did you and your thesis supervisor agree upon?

If it helps, put the different elements of what you’re studying into one of three buckets:

  • Thesis — areas within the scope of your thesis, as outlined in your proposal.
  • Follow-up — things that are slightly outside the scope of your thesis but which you could investigate once you’ve submitted your thesis (e.g. for post-doctoral research)
  • Out of scope — things that, while potentially fascinating, are not helping you earn this Masters degree or doctorate.

In other words, there are things that you have to do to complete the requirements of your postgraduate degree, and there are really interesting other things that get in the way. Make sure you know the difference between them.

2. Look

Whether or not you’ve used them before, mindmaps can be really handy when you’re feeling overwhelmed. They give you a visual overview of the territory you’re exploring, and can help you synthesise disparate ideas and concepts.

Doug's thesis mindmap

Somewhat incredibly, the mindmap I created a decade ago when I was in the midst of my doctoral work is still available online. It’s perhaps one of the most useful things I’ve ever done; not only was the output useful when talking with my thesis supervisor, but the process of creating it was helpful beyond words.

It can take days to create a large mindmap, and to begin with it can feel a bit like a waste of time. However, as you pull together notes from various systems (notebooks, online bookmarks, thoughts in your head, etc.) it starts to become a map of the territory of your thesis.

You could do this on paper, but the value of doing it digitally is that you can move things around and make connections between related ideas much more easily.

3. Listen

Whether learning a language or writing a thesis, difficult things are best approached little and often. Trying to cram them in to a single day per week (or the occasional weekend) doesn’t really work.

I found that getting up early and spending at least an hour on my thesis before work suited me best. Others might find this better late at night. Either way, if you work on your mindmap every day for a few days, I guarantee that it will begin to ‘speak’ back to you.

Things that previously seemed unrelated will become connected in your mind in new and interesting ways. You will start to understand where the boundaries of your work are. It’s at this point that you’re ready to take a chainsaw to the branches of your mindmap!

You have to be ruthless. If you want to complete your thesis, you need to kill your darlings. While it can feel a bit sad to say goodbye to things you’ve researched and found interesting, it’s actually quite liberating. After all, postgraduate study is hard enough without adding to your burden.

In addition, getting used to ruthlessly pruning your work at this stage is really good preparation. In the writing-up phase you will write many more words than you actually submit, and you will have to decide which ones don’t make it. For example, with a 100,000 word thesis you may end up writing at least 20-25% more than that, and then have to cut whole sections with which you were very pleased.

…and finally

Work openly and talk to other people about your experiences and struggles. You are not alone on this journey, and many have trod this path before you. Share what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and what you’re feeling. Good luck!

On (not) working in academia.

On (not) working in academia

I’m with Doug Pete in really liking the Zite app.

Although it’s a proprietary, closed product I haven’t come across anything close to it for discovery. Take, for instance, a post entitled On Leaving Academia by Terran Lane, someone I’ve not come across before. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico.

Terran is off to join Google.

His post is neatly organised into section titles listing the reasons he’s leaving academia to join Google:

  1. Opportunity to make a difference
  2. Workload and family/life balance
  3. Centralization of authority and decrease of autonomy
  4. Funding climate
  5. Hyper-specialization, insularity, and narrowness of vision
  6. Poor incentives
  7. Mass production of education
  8. Salaries
  9. Anti-intellectualism, anti-education, and attacks on science and academia

I’ve written about this kind of thing before in You need us more than we need you. As Terran explains, it’s not (just) about money.

Whereas he’s decided to quit academia, I’ve made a conscious choice from the start to stay on its sidelines. Around the margins. On the edges. Whilst the logical thing to do after my doctorate would have been to apply for a research position or lectureship at a university, I decided against it.

Why?

Not only would I be earning half the amount of money I am now – and less than when I was teaching in schools – but it seems a spectacularly bad time to decide to become a career academic. No money, no status, no freedom. And with the introduction of a market into UK Higher Education it’s increasingly difficult for academics to even claim the high moral ground.

That’s not to say academics aren’t doing good, publicly-useful work. Of course they are. It’s just crunch time in their industry.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of this talent-drain from academia. In fact, we’re already seeing a new generation of people not satisfied with traditional career structures and ways of working. I’m not sure if this is good or bad in the scheme of things, given the direction the universities (in the UK) seem to be headed under the current government.

What I do know is that universities need to do something, and fast. The Bank of Goodwill doesn’t have infinite reserves…

Image CC BY-NC-SA Patrick Gage

Impact: the most important reason for working in the open? (#openeducationweek)

“A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.” (Father Strickland)

Working in the open comes naturally to me. I’ve never jealously guarded ‘my’ work and really cannot comprehend a person who would rather work in a closed and restricted environment.

Both this blog and my doctoral thesis are CC0 licensed, which means that I’ve donated them to the public domain. If you want to take my work, copy it word-for-word and pass it off as your own or sell it, that’s fine. Seriously. Do what you like. I’m flattered you like it.

I found out today that the minor rewrites I submitted after my thesis defence have now been accepted. I now go onto the ‘Pass list’ at Durham University meaning that I can call myself Dr. Belshaw. This makes me happy.

Another piece of news I received today was via Twitter from Joe Wilson attending the NAACE conference 2012 (#naace12). NAACE is a membership organization for those involved with ICT education in the UK and beyond.

(Note: Joe made a typo in his haste – I’m actually @dajbelshaw)

This came as a bit of a surprise. Whilst I’m aware of people referencing my work, I didn’t realize that NAACE as a body knew of/was using it. Certainly their press release (if that’s the right one) doesn’t mention anything. But to insist on acknowledgement (see discussion here), I feel, is a form of ownership. And no-one owns ideas.

The most important value of working in the open for me? Impact.

I write about things that interest me and ideas that I hold to be good in the way of belief. As a consequence, and like most other people, I think the ideas expressed in my work may be of use to others. If ‘impact’ is getting others discussing, debating and accepting your ideas then, yes, I want to impact other people.

Academics in UK universities will soon have to demonstrate their ‘impact’ under the terms of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). I can’t help but think that one of the best ways for academics to achieve this is to dramatically improve the accessibility of their work. The easiest method? Release it under the least restrictive license you can. This seems so obvious to me as to be a no-brainer.

There are some caveats, of course: less restrictive licensing may be problematic for commercially-sensitive areas and huge fields.

Let me explain.

There are two main reasons why I can ‘afford’ to give my work away without asking for attribution or compensation:

1. I know that most people will, actually, reference it (and there’s a large chance that those who don’t will be called out by others in such a relatively small field)

2. I have a salaried occupation that does not depend upon me attracting funding to commercialise my ‘Intellectual Property’.

Perhaps I’m young and naive but I can’t help think that, if you can, you should give away your work. For free. Without copyright.

That’s how ideas gain traction.

This week is Open Education week. There’s lots of stuff on the JISC website about it.

Why peer-review is flawed.

Trusting Blind PeersAlthough I’m still yet to have an academic article published, I’ve made a public commitment to do so only in open-access journals. I’ve already dedicated this blog to the public domain (see CC0 license in footer) and shared my thesis online. Whilst for me it’s a logical continuation of my position as an open educator/academic/researcher/individual, I’ve been waiting for a compelling reason for others to ditch closed journals.

In this, my third blog post quoting Zygmunt Bauman (from a recent interview with Simon Dawes, editor of Theory, Culture & Society), I want to consider briefly the ways in which the whole edifice of the peer-review system is flawed. It’s not just about the binary distinction between whether a journal is ‘open’ or ‘closed’.

Simon Dawes: One final question, TCS is committed to the process of peer-review, and many of our (both rejected and accepted) contributors are grateful for the feedback given by our editors and anonymous reviewers, and for the subsequent strengthening of their articles, but you are critical of peer-review and no longer act as a referee for us. Could you tell us why?

Zygmunt Bauman: There are, by the most conservative counting, two grave and deeply regrettable collateral victims of the peer-review gruesome strategem: one is the daring of thought (wished-washed to the lowest common denominator), and the other is the individuality, as well as the responsibility of editors (those seeking shelter behind the anonymity of ‘peers’, but in fact dissolved in it, in many cases without a trace).

Last but not least, I would single out yet another collateral damage: the multitude of the trails blazed and heterogeneity of inspirations. I suspect that the peer-review system carriers a good part of blame for the fact that something like 60 percent or more of journal articles are never quoted (which means leaving no trace on our joint scholarly pursuits), and (in my reception at any rate) the ‘learned journals’… ooze monumental boredom. To find a new enlightening and inspiring idea (as distinct from finding a recipe for getting safely through the peer-built barricade), browsing through thousands of journal pages is all too often called for. With my tongue in one cheek only, I’d suggest that were our Palaeolithic ancestors to discover the peer-review dredger, we would still be sitting in caves…

That’s a fairly damning verdict from an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, don’t you think? I haven’t met anyone who thinks that the REF (Research Excellence Framework) is a good idea and does the job it’s intended to do. The ‘peer-built barricade’ that Bauman mentions evolved in a world before real-time communication between academics; although it feels obvious to say so, the internet changes everything. As proved with <a href="my thesis (see Appendix 3) the amount and quality of feedback does not depend either upon journals or anonymity. We can, and should, build a better (more democratic, fairer, transparent) system.

Image CC BY-SA Gideon Burton

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